Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Know Your Enemy: Denver

Today's Know Your Enemy entry is a program that seems to have been quite closely linked to RPI for some time now. Seth Appert came to RPI following his stint as a Denver assistant, and was reportedly DU's top choice to become their head coach during this offseason before Appert signed an extension to stay in Troy. Denver then hired former RPI assistant Jim Montgomery. As well, RPI athletic director Jim Knowlton's son Chris played four seasons for the Pioneers, graduating in 2013 after 138 games at DU.

Nickname: Pioneers
Location: Denver, CO
Founded: 1864
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 7 (1958, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1969, 2004, 2005)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2005
Coach: Jim Montgomery (1st year)
2012-13 Record: 20-14-5 (14-9-5 WCHA, 4th place)
Series: DU leads, 11-1-0
First Game: January 29, 1954 (Denver, CO)
Last RPI win: October 20, 2006 (Denver, CO)
Last DU win: October 21, 2006 (Denver, CO)

2013-14 games: December 13-14, 2013 (Troy, NY)

Key players: G Sam Brittain, sr.; D David Makowski, sr.; D Josiah Didier, jr.; F Daniel Doremus, jr.; D Joey LaLeggia, jr.; F Zac Larraza, jr.; F Ty Loney, jr.; F Matt Tabrum, jr.; F Grant Arnold, so.; F Gabe Levin, so.; F Quentin Shore, so.; D Nolan Zajac, so.; D Will Butcher, fr.; F Connor Chatham, fr.; F Trevor Moore, fr.

The December series at the Field House marks Denver's third trip to Troy ever, and the first to take place outside of the first weekend of a calendar year - the first trip was during the first weekend of 1967, the second in the first weekend of 1982.

The all-time series is quite lopsided - the Pioneers won the first 10 games they played against RPI between 1954 and 1982. Ironically, RPI's first ever win over Denver was also former DU assistant coach Appert's first win as RPI's head coach, splitting a series in late October that was put on the schedule before he'd even accepted the job.

History seemed about ready to repeat itself when multiple media reports had Appert as one of the top contenders to succeed his mentor, George Gwozdecky, as head coach at Denver, which would have seen Appert return to Troy coaching from the south side of the Field House had it gone through. Instead, an extension will keep Appert with RPI for many seasons to come, while Montgomery takes a high-profile position for his very first college head-coaching gig.

For a high-profile program, Denver is actually fairly young - unlike many of the classic programs of the east, the Pioneers didn't have their first season until after World War II, first dropping the puck in 1949-50 with a rough first season. DU lost 17-0 to the University of Saskatchewan in their first game, lost twice to Brown by a combined 33-3 score, lost 23-2 to the University of Alberta in their next to last game, and their only four wins on the season came against that hockey powerhouse, Wyoming. Not exactly a stellar beginning.

But that inauspicious beginning vanished relatively quickly. The Pioneers picked up wins over the more established teams from Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State in their second season, and notched their first win over local rivals Colorado College in 1952. From there, it was an upward march for the Pioneers, who earned their first winning season that year en route to 22 over the next 23 years, a stretch that would see the team establish a true dynasty during the 1960s.

Murray Armstrong was hired to coach the rising program in 1956, and it was under Armstrong that Denver would become one of the top programs in the new WCHA. In Armstrong's second year in Denver, the Pioneers captured their first national championship with a 6-2 victory over North Dakota in the title game, the first of three in a four year stretch that placed the Pioneers as one of the nation's top teams. During that four-year run, Denver had a combined 104-20-7 record.

The dominance continued throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Pioneers reached the national championship game again in 1963 and 1964, but fell to North Dakota and Michigan. Additional Frozen Four appearances in 1966, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, and 1973 continued DU's run as one of the nation's premiere teams, highlighted by back-to-back championships in 1968 and 1969 and a championship game appearance in 1973. During the first 14 years of the WCHA's existence, Denver won six regular-season championships, two overall tournament championships, and made 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, four of which resulted in titles.

The 1973 Frozen Four appearance was later vacated by the NCAA after it was found in 1976 that the school had violated eligibility rules by allowing some athletes to play after losing their amateur status playing with semi-professional teams in Canada, even though they were aware of the players' situation. The Pioneers were made ineligible for the 1977 and 1978 post-seasons.

When Armstrong departed in 1977 after 21 seasons in Denver, he had won 463 games and helmed only three losing seasons, one of which was his first and the other two coming toward the end of his tenure during the NCAA morass. Marshall Johnston, his replacement, guided Denver to a WCHA regular-season title and a coach of the year honor in his first season, but was gone three years later. Ralph Backstrom then led the team through the 1980s, earning big success in 1986 with WCHA regular-season and tournament titles and DU's first NCAA appearance in 13 years, culminating in a Frozen Four appearance. Backstrom's other teams across nine seasons were typically fair, but rarely outstanding.

Frank Serratore replaced Backstrom in 1990 for his first NCAA head coaching gig, and while he later found success at Air Force (where he now coaches), his time to the north in Denver was disastrous. In 1991, during his first season behind the bench, the Pioneers failed to reach 10 wins for the first time since their inaugural season, finishing dead last in the WCHA. DU went 15-55-4 in his first two seasons alone, including 30 losses in 1991.

Miami head coach George Gwozdecky came to Denver in 1994 to rejoin the league where he'd been a player with Wisconsin in the 1970s. Fresh off back-to-back 20-win seasons and the Redhawks' first NCAA appearance in 1993, "Gwoz" turned the Pioneers around quickly, putting them back in the NCAA tournament in just his first season while winning 25 games, 10 better than the team had mustered in Serratore's final season.

NCAA appearances and 20-win seasons would become commonplace under Gwozdecky. In 1999, DU won its first WCHA crown since 1986, the first of six WCHA banners the program would earn in his 19-year stint. The majority of the "Gwoz" glory came after 2002, as the Pioneers began a run of 12 straight 20-win seasons that continues to the present, and landed back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005, the school's first in 35 years. Defenseman Matt Carle won the school's first Hobey Baker Award in 2006.

Despite reaching the NCAA tournament for the past six consecutive seasons - a school record - and a WCHA regular season championship in 2010, Gwozdecky was fired at the end of 2013. The team's record in those six tournaments likely had a lot to do with that - the Pioneers are 1-6 in the national tournament during that stretch, the lone win coming in double overtime against Western Michigan in 2011.

So Denver begins a new era on two different fronts in this coming season - a new coach in Montgomery, and a new league after 54 years in the WCHA. DU will be the first member of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference to visit Troy and play against the Engineers.

The Pioneers lost their top scorer, Nick Shore, when he signed a pro deal with the LA Kings, and their top three goal scorers (Shawn Ostrow, Knowlton, and Shore). Their top goaltender last year, Juho Olkinuora, also fled for the NHL, as did top defenseman Scott Mayfield, both with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

That kind of early departure list would be devastating for a lot of teams, and it's likely to make the Pioneers less potent as they could have been, but there's plenty still around in Denver to make them a solid team. Four defensemen who played at least 75% of the team's games last year return, as do four forwards who notched at least eight goals each. Brittain already has experience as DU's top-choice goaltender, having held down the position in his freshman season before being displaced by Olkinuora, and his numbers that year were nothing to sneeze at.

And when it comes to coaching, there are few coaches with the track record of Jim Montgomery to be making their head coaching debut this season. He's been very successful wherever he's been, including in Dubuque where he coached Luke Curadi three seasons ago, and at RPI as Appert's top lieutenant.

Despite all of the changes the Pioneers have experienced this offseason - new coach, new league, early departures - RPI fans can still expect them to be packing a considerable punch when they show up at Houston Field House in December. But RPI should be packing a sizable punch of its own. It'll be interesting to watch and see how DU stacks up in a smaller but amazingly difficult new conference (all eight teams have been in the NCAA tournament in the last three seasons, including four last season) ahead of the visit.

Of the non-conference teams coming to Troy this season, this is the must-see series of the year - not just because of the extensive links between the two programs over the last several years, but because the matchup should be absolutely stellar, and both teams ought to be able to learn quite a bit about themselves during the course of the mid-season weekend.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Know Your Enemy: Mercyhurst

The craziness that exuded the conference tournaments this season carried into Atlantic Hockey as well, and a team on RPI's schedule last season, Mercyhurst, were one of the beneficiaries. They didn't grab the brass ring - owing to the presence of another unexpectedly successful team, Canisius - but an outstanding March has left the Lakers in a good position to take another run at glory in Atlantic Hockey.

Nickname: Lakers
Location: Erie, PA
Founded: 1926
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2005
Last Frozen Four: 1995 (Division II)
Coach: Rick Gotkin (26th year)
2012-13 Record: 19-17-5 (12-11-4 Atlantic Hockey, 6th place)
Series: RPI leads, 6-2-0
First Game: November 25, 2000 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 17, 2012 (Troy, NY)
Last MU win: November 28, 2008 (Troy, NY)

2013-14 games: November 22-23, 2013 (Erie, PA)

Key players: D Nick Jones, sr.; F Daniel O'Donoghue, sr.; F Kyle Just, sr.; G Jordan Tibbett, sr.; F Daniel Bahntge, jr.; F Chris Bodo, jr.; F Zac Frischmon, jr.; D Grant Gettinger, jr.; F Ryan Misiak, jr.; F Nardo Nagtzaam, jr.; D Tyler Shiplo, jr.; F Matthew Zay, jr.; F Kyle Cook, so.; F Mike Sones, fr.; F Kyle Dutra, fr.; D Philippe Drouin, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
After a 4-1 win over a resurgent UConn team that was supposed to be Niagara's only real competition in the Atlantic Hockey tournament, the Lakers ended up squaring off not against the Purple Eagles, but against one of their long-time rivals from back in the days of the MAAC - Canisius. The Golden Griffins put a serious hurting on Mercyhurst as the Lakers fell 7-2 in a lopsided championship game, but the disappointing end was part of a final month that saw Mercyhurst go 5-2-2 to close out the team's second straight solid year.

The Lakers had a younger squad last season, but it was a team largely led by its juniors and sophomores, players who are now seniors and juniors. Of the team's top seven scorers, five return. That includes Zay, the overall leading scorer last season, and Misiak and Bodo, who paced the team with 18 goals each.

However, as much scoring as Mercyhurst brings back, they're probably going to want to be a little less top-heavy when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Outside of the top seven scorers, the Lakers got just 12 goals all season from their forwards farther down the depth chart. Part of that is due to injury - Nagtzaam, who had a stellar freshman season, missed most of the year, as did Cook during his freshman campaign.

Throw in the other top forwards - O'Donoghue and Bahntge - and it makes for a solid top few lines when it comes to scoring ability. Jones (7 goals, 19 assists) and Shiplo (4 goals, 10 assists) represent some offensive ability from the blue line as well.  If the Lakers find a way to spread the scoring out a bit more, they could be a dangerous squad overall, but coming into the season opponents certainly have their targets to shut down.

Defensively, the Lakers' top goaltender from last year has graduated, but Tibbett, who saw action against the Engineers in the second game last season, got a solid amount of work in last season as the top backup. Gettinger is the team's top defensive defenseman and Jones is competent on both sides of the puck, but Mercyhurst could well have problems stopping RPI's balanced attack.

The Mercyhurst series last year represented something of a turnaround moment for the Engineers - off a road league weekend at Dartmouth and Harvard in which RPI were shutout twice while playing some dreadful hockey, the Engineers got things going with a sweep of the Lakers at home, 4-2 and 4-1, the start of a run that saw the 'Tute go 16-7-3 through the end of the regular season.

This series represents RPI's first ever trip to Erie after having hosted Mercyhurst eight times in Troy since the turn of the millennium. It represents something of an advancement for the Lakers to be drawing a home series against the Engineers, but they've certainly earned it by being one of the more quality programs in their conference for quite some time. RPI should be favored in this series, but Mercyhurst is a team they can't afford to sleep on, especially now that they're playing them on the road, since they have the capacity to strike well from their top lines.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

As expected, UNH bounced back from a miserable 2011-12 season to return to the upper reaches of Hockey East and get themselves back to the NCAA tournament, where they're accustomed to spending late March. Unfortunately, an extremely promising early season run turned sour as the calendar turned to 2013, and despite a "home" win in the NCAAs over Denver, UNH failed to reach the Frozen Four for the tenth consecutive season after running into a determined UMass-Lowell squad, despite nine NCAA appearances since falling in the 2003 national championship game.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (24th season)
2012-13 Record: 20-12-7 (13-8-6 Hockey East, 3rd place)
Series: UNH leads, 25-20-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 10, 2009 (Troy, NY)
Last UNH win: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

2013-14 game: October 26, 2013 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Justin Agosta, sr.; F Kevin Goumas, sr.; D Eric Knodel, sr.; F Dalton Speelman, sr.; G Casey DeSmith, jr.; F Grayson Downing, jr.; F Casey Thrush, jr.; D Trevor van Riemsdyk, jr.; D Brett Pesce, so.; D Matias Cleland, fr.; F Tyler Kelleher, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
This is a team strangely devoid of NHL draft picks - Knodel is the only one on the roster as of this capsule, but Pesce is certain to join him in that club after the draft at the end of the month. That's not to say that this is a weak team by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, this is a team that, while they were young last year - which may have contributed to the team's late-season slide - are back as a well-rounded, veteran side.

Defensively, the Wildcats are primed to build on a defense that was in the Top 10 nationally last season with a seasoned blueline corps and a goaltender in DeSmith who has now put together two very good seasons for UNH between the pipes. This is one of the more obvious strengths that the Wildcats will have, but their depth offensively should have them among their usual ranks of the national elite as well.

30 of UNH's 122 goals last year came from two seniors - John Henrion and Austin Block with 15 each. But between names like Goumas, who could be a legit Hobey Baker candidate, Downing, who tied Henrion and Block for the team lead in goals, and the offensive-minded Knodel and van Riemsdyk, the Wildcats have plenty of sources to get offense from all over the ice.

The bottom line? UNH is a team with few holes, just as they were last year in a game that RPI played relatively well but still ended up getting completely trucked. The Engineers last season managed to score a pair of goals (both from Curtis Leonard), which was more than the Wildcats were allowing in an average game at that point, but the UNH offense overwhelmed Scott Diebold.

This year's game will feature two teams that were a little young last year, which may have contributed to the less-than-satisfying finishes for both squads. The major change will likely be in RPI's net, with Jason Kasdorf the expected starter assuming that he's healthy - he'd been injured for the game in Durham last season - and the move down to NHL-sized ice.

This should be a fun game to watch. The slight edge that UNH may have in talent is countered with the Engineers' home ice advantage, and like most of the other non-conference games Seth Appert has set up for RPI, should represent a gut-check early season challenge for a team that seeks glory in March.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Know Your Enemy: Boston University

It's something more than a new era on Commonwealth Avenue. It's a separation from a 40-year legacy left by one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hockey. While there was BU hockey before Jack Parker (they won their first two national championships before his tenure began), it does feel odd for the Terriers to be moving on without the coach with the most career wins with a single program leading the way.

Boston University
Nickname: Terriers
Location: Boston, MA
Founded: 1839
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 5 (1971, 1972, 1978, 1995, 2009)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2009
Coach: David Quinn (1st season)
2012-13 Record: 21-16-2 (15-10-2 Hockey East, 3rd place)
Series: BU leads, 34-29-3
First Game: March 14, 1953 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 11, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last BU win: January 4, 2013 (Boston, MA)

2013-14 game: October 18, 2013 (Boston, MA)

Key players: F Sahir Gill, sr.; D Patrick MacGregor, sr.; D Garrett Noonan, sr.; F Cason Hohmann, jr.; D Alexx Privitera, jr.; F Evan Rodrigues, jr.; D Matt Grzelcyk, so.; F Sam Kurker, so.; G Sean Maguire, so.; D Ahti Oksanen, so.; G Matt O'Connor, so.; F Danny O'Regan, so.; F Robbie Baillargeon, fr.; F Brendan Collier, fr.; F Kevin Duane, fr.; D Doyle Somerby, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
There's practically nothing that could be more apparent in terms of change than in a program having its first new coach in 40 seasons. That's what the Terriers now have with Quinn taking control of a program that has had continuity in the captain's chair since 1973, when Parker replaced former RPI coach Leon Abbott early in the 1973-74 season.

Changing coaches can result in a change in direction for a program, even programs used to being among the best in the nation on a regular basis like BU. With Quinn, however, the chances of a precipitous fall seem low. Once a highly-touted defenseman drafted in the first round of the 1984 NHL Draft by Minnesota, Quinn was diagnosed with Christmas disease, a type of hemophilia, in 1987, which cut short his hockey career (although with medication, he played in the minors in the early 1990s). Quinn has been coaching since the 1990s, spending time as an assistant at Northeastern, Nebraska-Omaha, and BU over the years - he was an assistant on the 2009 national championship team. He also worked in development at USA Hockey.

In 2009, following the Terriers' crown, he gained his first head coaching gig in the AHL as the coach of the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland, where he spent three seasons before becoming an assistant coach with the Monsters' NHL team, the Colorado Avalanche, in 2012. Quinn's announcement as Parker's replacement was swift following BU's season, and there was little turbulence in the first transition of power in 40 years.

On the ice, the Terriers will look very similar to the team that just barely missed out on both a Hockey East championship and an NCAA tournament bid. Eight of the team's top 10 scorers from last season return, though the losses of Matt Nieto, who will forgo his senior season for an NHL contract, and Wade Megan, who graduated, will hurt a little, as they were the top two goal scorers last year.

Still, there's plenty of firepower to be had: Rodrigues did everything but score against RPI last season as part of a breakout sophomore year, and big things are expected from O'Regan, Hohmann, and Gill this year. Defensively, the Terriers should be in good shape as long as Privitera  who was shut down late last season for disciplinary reasons, can return. In net, BU platooned their freshman goaltenders last year, neither standing head and shoulders above the other. Expect that to continue into this season unless O'Connor or Maguire can firmly establish themselves as the top choice.

And, of course, BU being BU, they've got a few solid recruits coming into the program as it turns the page. Baillargeon, Somerby, and Collier were all drafted in 2012, and figure to be solid contributors out of the gate.

Whether the long-time RPI/BU non-conference series will continue without Parker (who was fond of playing RPI regularly) is unknown, but the "tradition" continues this season with a second consecutive year playing at Agganis Arena. Last year's 3-2 overtime victory for the Terriers was the first for BU over the Engineers in the building, but RPI played tough as they always do against their friendly rivals from Boston. The Tute will be without goaltender Bryce Merriam, who frequently gave BU fits, but this should be another outstanding edition of this long-running set given what both teams return to the equation this season. It should be a tough game for both sides that will likely mete out trouble spots for either team early in the campaign.